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Vol. VI. PHILADELPHIA, APRIL, 18 50. No. 4.
THE LOG SCHOOLHOUSE.
BY MBS. C. M. KIRKLAND.
It has been justly objected, with regard to the public idea of the means of literary culture in our country, that we are too fond of building our colleges of brick and stone, instead of laying their more solid foundations in professors and students. We certainly do practically give our assent to the vulgar notion that showy buildings are of the first importance in our seminaries of learning, able teachers only of the second. Funds that would bring talent from another hemisphere, or call it into action within our own borders, are often buried in monstrous fabrics, which wait useless for years until new means can be raised for filling them with the teachers and pupils who are their ultimate object; and state pride is strangely gratified by gazing at these memorials of one of the many blunders of our materialism.
But there is a class of educational edifices to which no such objection can be made. The log schoolhouse in the deep woods, is a far nobler proof of intellectual aspiration than any huge empty college building of them all. Its grotesque outline has, for the eye of the thoughtful patriot, a grace that mere columns and arches can never give—the grace of earnestness, of a purpose truly lofty in its seeming humility. A log schoolhouse is the veritable temple of learning and religion, without the remotest idea of paltry ornament; devoted, in naked simplicity, to an idea which is its consecration and its beauty. "Do the people need place to pray, and calls to hear His word?" says Km-kin. in that delightful latest book of his,v "then it is no time for smoothing pillars or carving pulpits; let us first have enough of walls and roofs"—-and no doubt a truer dignity attends the roughest erection that has a truly high purpose, than can be expressed in the richest
* The Seven Lamps of Architecture.
material and the most elaborate forms that mere pride and vanity can compass or devise.
And this is not mere empty talk or aesthetio dreaming. The higher and more perfect the cultivation of mind and taste which the American traveller carries with him into the western country, the more of true and touching beauty will he see in the log schoolhouse that greets him, in some little unexpected clearing, as he takes his solitary way through the forest. He has passed, it may be, many a noble farm, with its fenced fields and ample barns, its woodlands resounding with the axe, and its chambers vocal with the spinning-wheel; he has seen the owner amid his labourers, sharing or directing their profitable toil; he has sat at hospitable boards, spread with the luxury of rural comfort thus provided, and inspected mills and factories, promising as Californian rivers; but all this had reference only to the material and the perishable. This was only the body whereof that uncouth log schoolhouse typifies the soul. The soul can do without the body, but the body becomes a loathsome mass without the soul. Indeed all this smiling plenty, this warm industry, this breathing quiet, is the fruit of the log schoolhouse, for did not public spirit, general intelligence and piety emanate from that humble source?
We will not say that as soon as the settler has a roof over his head he thinks of a schoolhouse in which public meetings may be held, for in truth he ascertains the probability of such a building, before he selects a site for his homestead. As soon as a tree is felled, a schoolhouse is thought of, and the whole neighbourhood are at once, and for once, of one accord in erecting it. It is a rough enough thing when it is done, for your backwoodsman looks only to the main point in everything, and dreams not of superfluity. He means that the roof shall shed rain, and the piled sides keep the wind out, and the floor afford dry footing. He puts in windows for light, and benches to sit upon, and a pulpit or rostrum from which a speaker may be well heard. Then there is a great stove for the long winter, and sometimes, —not always, unfortunately,—some shelter for waiting steeds. But a thought of symmetry, of smoothing, of decoration—never intrudes. Architecture, which begins after every purpose of mere use in a building is provided for, is out of the question here. Whoever would admire the log schoolhouse, must bring the beauty in his own mind.
Yet it is hardly fair to say so, either. Letting the inside go, with its cave-like roughness, the outer aspect is not altogether devoid of the beauty which the artist loves. As to colour, nothing can be finer, after a year's mellowing. When the tender spring green clothes the trees around it, its rich brown and gray earthy tints make the most delicious harmony, and its undulating outlines no discord. If log houses have not yet come well into pictures, it is because no artistic imagination has yet been warmed by them. We remember one, in a picture of Cole's, but it was the poorest, nakedest thing that could be, more literal than reality itself. It was as different from the true—i. e. the ideal log house—as a builder's draught of the Parthenon from a Raffaelesque picture of it. Such cold correctness is death to typical beauty, for it does not recognise a soul in the inanimate. The painter had only seen log houses, he had never felt them, as he had the woods and waters that he painted so well. A Daguerreotype representation of a log house would be, to all intents and purposes, a libel, for every tint of earth and sky has peculiar business in a true picture of this exquisitely characteristic and interesting object in western scenery. Ruskin talks of Paul Veronese's painting, not, like Landseer, a dog "wrought out with exquisite dexterity of handling, and minute attention to all the accidents of curl and gloss, which can give appearance of reality, while the hue and power of the sunshine, &c., are utterly neglected"—but "the essence of dog;" now we want a painter who can give us the essence of log house, and particularly of log schoolhouse, or we would as soon see a wood-pile painted. That the Swiss chalet should have proved more inspiring to American painters, shows the blinding power of prejudice, or the illusion of strangeness; though, to be sure, we have not Alps to tower above our primal edifices.
The enmity felt by the backwoodsman against trees too often exhibits itself in the vicinity of the schoolhouse, which ought to be shaded in summer, and shielded in winter, by the pon
derous trunks and green embracing arms in the midst of which it generally stands. But, accepting literally the poet's idea—"the groves were God's first temples," we cut down the grove to make our temple, yet inconsistently "clear" the space about it, partly for the sake of the necessary fuel, partly to make the place look civilized! It is hard to get a few trees left for the children to sit under in the summer noon-spell. There is a savage rudeness in this, but it is in accordance with the leading idea of "subduing" the country, and there is no surer way of putting a western settler in a passion, than talking to him about sparing a few trees, for any purpose. He will plant them, perhaps, but he will never consent to leave them standing where nature placed them. When he sits in the schoolhouse on Sunday, listening to the sermon with his ears, while his mind, perhaps, strays off into that unseen which the week's cares and toils are apt to banish, or finds itself still entangled in those cares and toils, he loves to look through the windows, or the chinks, at the distant woods. Distant, they please and soothe him; he feels, if he does not hear, their soft music; he sees their gentle waving, and appreciates in some degree the power of their beauty; but near, the association is unpleasant. His hands yet ache with the week's chopping, which must be forgotten that Sunday may be Sunday; and the vicinity of huge trunks is suggestive only of labour. A wide bare space about the building has, to his imagination, the dignity of a field of triumph. It seems to afford sanction to the Sabbath repose.
Within, neither paint nor plaster interferes with the impression of absolute rusticity. Desks of the rudest form line the sides, making a hollow oblong, in the middle of which stands the stove, surrounded by low, long benches for the little ones. On week-days these are filled with pinafored urchins, who sit most of the time gazing at the pieces of sky they can discern through the high windows, or playing with bits of stick or straw, too insignificant to attract the keen, stern eye of the master, who would at once pounce upon a button or a marble. One by one these minims are called up to be alphabetized, or spell "c-a-t, pussy," in the picture-book. Spelling and arithmetic are decidedly the favourite studies in most district schools; writing is troublesome, and reading is expected to come by nature. A half wild, half plaintive sound fills the air, the sound of recitation, which is generally an irksome business on both sides, the teacher too often conscious of utter incompetency and hating the task, the pupil feeling the incompetency of the teacher, at least enough to be certain that he himself is in hopeless circumstances as far as "book-larnin'" is concerned.